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The healthy food trend has touched all parts of the food industry, including fast food. In this two-part series we examine the health effects of ultra-processed fast-food, where plant based alternatives may play a role in the future of fast food, and how restaurants can offer healthy, enticing, grab-and-go and fast food options for 21st century diners. 

Fast food hits the spot – in taste, convenience and price – but it has taken a toll on the nation’s health. Fast foods are enhanced to appeal to all of our senses and drive craving and consumption by tapping into the same hormonal pathways that addictive substances do. 

With obesity and diabetes at all time highs, consumers are now realizing that while they enjoy the comfort fast food offers, they would prefer it to be a bit healthier. 

Big fast food chains, like Burger King, McDonald’s and KFC all have plant-based dishes on the menu as they experiment with the ‘wholesome restaurant’ concept. But plant based doesn’t necessarily mean less processed or healthier.

The Problem with Ultra-Processed Foods

Common processed foods are sterilized and boosted with additives that prolong their shelf life. But ultra-processed foods take it one step further. 

Flavor, texture, color, shape, and even odor are all intensified. Original ingredients are broken down into basic chemical building blocks in the lab, and then put back together; increasing the speed at which the body digests it and the speed in which the brain gets a kick out of it. 

Ultra-processed ingredients are the main building blocks of fast food. Numerous studies show there is a strong connection between ultra-processed foods and diet-related health conditions like obesity, diabetes, heightened cholesterol, fatty liver and more. 

In 2018, ultra-processed foods provided 57% of calories ingested by the average American. Fast food is accessible, convenient, and affordable – couple that with lab-induced tastiness and you have products that are basically irresistible.

The result, however, is that 50% of American adults suffer from diabetes or pre-diabetes, and 75% of the population is overweight and 42% are obese.

Covid-19 encouraged many people to become more aware of their wellbeing and boosted the trend towards healthier, more sustainable living, and better fast-food in particular. 

Fast Food Restaurant Chains Add Healthy Options

Fast food restaurant chains recognized years ago that consumers want healthy alternatives as well. They started offering simpler low calorie options. In 1987 McDonalds was already offering salads, and in 1992 the chain was estimated to consume 2% of the national lettuce crop. 

Now that technology has unlocked quality plant-based alternatives, which deliver nearly indistinguishable taste and texture as their meaty counterparts, major restaurant chains have shifted their focus to highly processed plant-based alternatives. 

McDonald’s actually stopped serving salads altogether during Covid-19. Their Beyond Meat McPlant patty, on the other hand, achieved a successful pilot and might soon be available nationwide. 

Grubhub recently announced the Impossible Cheeseburger was the most ordered food of 2021. This is a clear statement that consumer demand for healthier fast food is surging. 

BurgerKing’s Impossible Whopper was rolled out two years ago and this October they are adding Impossible Nuggets to the menu. KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts, Taco Bell and others all have plant-based meat alternatives on the menu to meet demand generated by the 52% of Americans who wish to reduce their meat intake. 

The trend isn’t confined to fast-food chains, either. Daniel Humm converted his three- Michelin-star restaurant to vegan and the waitlist is still 50,000 people long. In between major chains and fine-dining are the vast majority of mom-and-pop restaurants that are now adding healthier options to their menus. 

Plant Based - Not Always as Healthy as One Would Hope

Most plant based patties, along with other meat, dairy or egg alternatives, are highly processed. It is simply the nature of the (vegan) beast.

In-fact, they probably fall directly into the definition of ultra-processed, which means they are constructed from broken-down elements or ingredients with many enhancive additives. 

Scientists are still investigating if reducing consumption of animal-derived products outweighs the health impacts of ingesting a multitude of ultra-processed ingredients. But one thing is clear – clean label food is probably the healthiest way ahead.  

Beware of Greenwashing

Many restaurants fall into the greenwashing marketing trap, sometimes unknowingly. Greenwashing in the food-service context means portraying a healthy, sustainable, cruelty-free dining experience, when in fact the reality is far from that. 

For example, catering to specific dietary restrictions like keto, soy-free and other allergens, does not necessarily mean a dish is healthy. And using ultra-processed food products and unhealthy oils while claiming to serve healthy food is misleading. 

In the next article we explore what restaurants can do to serve healthier fast-food, and meet eateries that are doing it right. 

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